We have forced a fateful transformation of our sacred narrative. America is now tasked with bringing the dark side to submission. But of course we have neither the means nor the will to do so. The Great Muslim War will keep us locked in, so the more we thrash within our story, the more we will undo ourselves. Our narrative has blocked every exit. Escape officially equals retreat, and retreat equals utter defeat. We must never quit the fight—meaning we remain willing participants to our final fall.
This is our defeat-dynamic: We have set up non-state triumph in Iraq, no matter when or how we leave it. We have ensured the eventual collapse of our ancien regime nation-states. We have no relationship with revolutionary communities that will succeed them.
Tragically, the transformation of the American narrative is no simple, awful misstep. It is no neocon excursion that simply needs to be recalled, at which point a sound course will set things right. We created our inescapable struggle with Islam—and the world’s awareness is unraveling American modernity, whose existence always depended on its confident future. This is finished.
Years may pass before this becomes clear. So cries for a rejuvenated liberal internationalism will shout down their own irrelevance. They will get all the airtime they want in the national conversation because they are performing an essential service. They reassure national elites that our historical disaster can be reversed by a stroke of policy. But over time, the oratory will wear so thin that reality will at last be naked: our universal story is now chaff to the wind like the grand narratives of all empires.
America’s destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan mobilized the Muslim world against us, but more than that it put the global other on notice. For much of the West and most of Islam, the lie of modernity as American altruism is dying in Iraq. Americans care about the death of their soldiers but barely a whit for the destruction of a society wrought in the name of “democracy.”
Our future now veers wildly from the Cold War’s end, when our sacred narrative touched fulfillment. We thought we were moments from finishing the Lord’s work. Now the Lord’s work is killing Islamists.
A great nation continues to marshal its collective power, but it will face a changed world. There will still be grand nations like China, India, and others. The United States survives, in material terms greater than ever. But its war narrative has helped to birth a changed world and to cast off its claim to the universal. There will also be a weltering of new human combinations and re-combinations.
The subsiding of modernity may be liberating. Freed from the world center, we might find a safer place to survey an evolving humanity. No longer the object of all attack, we might productively rethink our national purpose. Old modernity’s institutions and practices will be folded into, and thus partly lost within, a new world-cultural mix. This may not be our preferred outcome. But losing our claim to the universal opens the way to new realities. We might take comfort that American modernity will be a part of them.
We might take comfort too in being history’s greatest midwife to change, if also to our own undoing.
—Michael Vlahos, The Fall of Modernity: Has the American narrative authored its own undoing?, The American Conservative, February 26, 2007 Issue, via Arts & Letters Daily